Books interview: Vincanne Adams

The medical anthropologist and editor of Metrics: What Counts in Global Health on New Orleans and Katrina, Naomi Klein and Dave Eggers, Ayn Rand and Ursula K. LeGuin

March 17, 2016
Vincanne Adams, University of California, San Francisco

What book or books first captured your attention as a child?
It is going to sound ridiculous, but the two that stand out are books that I read in seventh or eighth grade: Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, both in my school’s library. In their own very different ways – Rand with her absurd imaginary of totalitarianism and LeGuin, who was the daughter of famous anthropologist Alfred Kroeber – they, I think, taught me to see the world through the eyes of a social scientist before I was politically conscious. Of course, I eventually found ethnography a much more effective genre for this sort of work.

In your own field, which books or scholars have been most influential to you?
Early on, I was most influenced by radical leftist anthropologists: Michael Taussig, Ronald Frankenberg, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Jean Comaroff and the philosopher scholars they read (from Marx to Foucault). More recently, I’ve been more influenced by public intellectuals – Naomi Klein, Ananya Roy and Paul Krugman – who are trying to change the national (and international) conversation on our most pressing problems.

Your book Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina grew out of your research in that city. Have you any favourite books about New Orleans?
Working on that book really changed my life, for the better, and enabled me to develop lifelong attachments to that city and her people and to think beyond my geographic areas of expertise. Influential and favourite books here are Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun and Jordan Flaherty’s Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six as well as John Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America and Henry Giroux’s Stormy Weather: Katrina and the Politics of Disposability. Really, I saw (and see) the Katrina story as a continuation of what I had seen and been studying about in poor countries elsewhere in the world. Suddenly, it was here in our own backyard.

For scholars and others concerned about the greatest challenges facing healthcare – from antibiotic resistance to climate change – which recent books, academic or otherwise, would you recommend?
Several works stand out as exceptional: Julie Livingston’s Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic; Johanna Crane’s Scrambling for Africa: Aids, Expertise, and the Rise of American Global Health Science; Sharon Kaufman’s Ordinary Medicine: Extraordinary Treatments, Longer Lives, and Where to Draw the Line, about the tangle of biotechnology, Medicare and clinical excellence that unwittingly drive us, in the US, to extreme forms of medicine at the end of life.

What is the last book you gave as a gift?
I gave copies of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything to all my family and friends.

Vincanne Adams is professor of medical anthropology, University of California, San Francisco, and editor of Metrics: What Counts in Global Health (Duke University Press).

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